Calibrating your Monitor

Calibrating your Monitor

It’s easy to forget about. You use it for just about everything in life, you rely on it more than you know, but might not even know how inaccurately you are viewing and editing the digital world. Out of all of the gear photographers lust over, camera bodies, lenses, and the thousands of dollars spent to acquire these light capturing tools, most forget about one of the cheapest and most important pieces of gear they need.┬áIf you are a photographer and have not properly calibrated your computer monitor, you need to stop editing photos and get on this. I repeat, do not edit another photo before taking the steps to ensure proper monitor calibration.

Why Calibrate

Every single computer model, monitor, and operating system comes out of the box with default settings for levels of contrast, saturation, color cast, and brightness. Why is this a big deal? Who cares if your monitor present colors look differently than anybody else’s? A little thing called standardization. If you want to deliver a quality, consistent product to your clients, you gotta hop on the standardization train. Unlike the color swatches you see in design applications, where clicking on a color box the designate colors for fonts, shapes, etc. where you know clicking that color box means exactly that (in terms of RGB levels), photographing the world as we know it doesn’t come with a color swatch. As a photographer, you pull up images on your computer and edit based off of sight, not a color swatch (swatches having standards across the board, ex. you don’t have to sweat what it will look like on another computer or in print, because the standard red in your color swatch, RGB value R:254 G:16 B:33 is what it is). You can throw all of that universal color reassurance out the window when you are editing photographs, because we are capturing light and colors, not making fonts and shapes and assigning color values to faces, backgrounds, etc. There is no standard color for the infinite combinations of colors and lighting tossed your way as a photographer. You tweak exposure, white balance, contrast levels, etc by looking at images, determining what settings best fit a particular image. So how do you know what you see on your computer screen will be accurately reproduced on other computer screens, and more importantly, print shops. How do you know what is a “proper” white balance on your screen isn’t completely off from industry standards (aside from using a white balance tool at time of capture, which you still usually tweak a bit with retinal feedback)? Ever edited photos, exported them to the web, and viewed them on another monitor only to see dramatic differences? From white balance to exposure, depending on the computer setup, things can look downright awful.

A poorly calibrated screen is like looking at the world through a pair of colored sunglasses. You can’t properly make accurate adjustments to your photos based off of sight, and you’ll end up compensating on your screen.

For example, if you are unknowingly editing on a monitor that is displaying things “warmer” than it should be (a more orange color cast), you’ll have to overcompensate with blue tones to present the image “accurately” on your monitor. That’s all fine and dandy until you look at your images on an properly calibrated monitor, or send your photos to print. You’ll end up with blue images, people looking like they are a long lost relative to Poppa Smurf. Does that make sense? To ensure you are making accurate edits you have to have an accurate monitor to make these visual decisions.

You can’t sit and wonder how other people’s monitors are calibrated, but you can do your part and make sure your monitor is accurate. This will ensure that prints will look good. Besides, if someone else’s monitor is say… on the warmer side of things, everything they view will be warmer, so it’ll be… consistently… bad. Properly calibrating your monitor will immediately restore the confidence in your edits, and take the guesswork to if your prints will turnout.

You need to edit for the world of monitors, mobile devices, and print, and how they will see it, not just your one monitor.

Preset and Default Color Profiles

Default color profiles in your computer’s screen preference settings don’t mean jack. Seriously, I can’t say it any simpler than that. A very popular standard for example is Adobe RGB 1998. Every computer monitor will come out of the box with a different presentation of color, contrast, brightness, etc., so what makes you think you are properly displaying Adobe RGB 1998? The fact is you don’t. Your monitor might be close to industry standards, or it could be miles off. These profiles do not have any reference point to your make and model of computer or monitor, so this is the last thing you want to use for gauging color calibration.

Common Mistakes In Editing Due To Poor Calibration

Exposure and white balance are where I see most of the common mistakes of photographers. The kicker here is that it’s probably not even their fault, and are unknowingly using a poorly calibrated monitor (here’s to hoping). Exposure is obvious for most, as subjects will be way too bright or dark. I sit there and wonder as I thumb through their images, exposure so far off I being to speculate if they shot and edited with their eyes closed. White balance is an even more frequent problem. From what I’ve seen, most photographers in their first few years of photography wouldn’t know proper white balance if it came up and bit them in the ass. Some photographers never seek the information and spend their lives shooting and editing without a clue of the terrible edits being made, never thinking past their own monitor. Not only will poor white balance leave images looking too warm or too cool, it does a giant disservice for color separation. It’s practically the same as if you were to put a sepia color filter on your images, turning everything to a brown color cast, with colors losing their importance. The same thing goes for standard white balance. If your images are too orange, it’s like you just put an orange filter on your whole image, and colors will lose their punch and separation.

Out of all the feedback I receive from my images, one of the top comments are, “wow, look at those colors!” Yes, I use high-end photo gear, which helps with contrast and saturation levels, but more importantly is the attention paid to white balance in post. I can shoot with a $6,000 camera setup all day long, but if I can’t nail my white balance in post, it’s all a loss, colors don’t pop, and everything looks bland. The age-old saying still holds true – you are only as strong as your weakest link.

Your Next Most Important Gear Purchase

It’s more important than your next camera body or lens purchase. It’s more important than any other upgrade you could possibly make to your photography. Somehow most monitors get neglected, it’s importance of presentation overlooked or forgotten. You sweat bullets at your photo shoots, working as hard as you can to make photographic magic, only to completely crash and burn in post because you’ve overlooked the importance of a simple hundred dollar purchase. Seriously? You are asking your clients to trust your abilities and “invest” and give you money to take their pictures, yet yet you can’t take the time to ensure your screen is even presenting the right colors?

If you haven’t done so, this purchase will make the most dramatic increase to the consistency of your work, even more than that big lens. You know, that lens with the red ring around the end of the barrel.

How To Calibrate

Simple. Buy a monitor calibration tool. This tool comes with both physical and software components. The hardware is required to provide the standardization that we seek (the compass in this whole game), and it directly talks to software and makes the proper adjustments to your monitor. The calibration tool sits on your screen while the calibration software runs through a bunch of color and brightness scenarios. Hit ‘go’ and two minutes later your screen is properly calibrated. The hardest part was literally ordering the thing online.

A company called Datacolor makes a product called Spyder. There are a few different models, the only differences is the software that runs the calibration, with the physical calibrator tool being the same. You can pickup the Spyder Express for less than 100 bucks. This is what I have and does a fine job. I’ve used the pro models of the software and I think they are just gimmicks to get you to spend more money. The express model does a fine job. There are other calibration companies out there, but I can attest to the Spyder, which I’ve been using for years.

Turn your computer on and wait 30 minutes before calibrating. This will allow the monitor to reach it’s regular operating levels. I don’t know if this wait time is even needed with the newer LED monitors, but I still follow this practice just to be sure. Besides, I’m going to be on my computer anyways…

Calibrate Often

Once you’ve purchased a Spyder, or like device, recalibrate your monitor every few months. A monitor’s presentation qualities shift with the age of the monitor. The most dramatic shifts will be in the first six months of a monitor’s life. The Spyder software can be set to remind you to recalibrate at designated intervals of time. Every six months should be more than adequate to ensure your monitor stays within healthy, accurate condition.

All Done

Now you can sit-back and relax, knowing your images are presented accurately, and your adjustments will present well in both the digital and print world.

You Can’t Cheat This One

Oh, and one more quick note. There are probably a few readers thinking they’ll cheat the system, get someone who has the exact model of computer they have and ask them to email over a color profile from a properly calibrated system. Sorry, it doesn’t work like that. Each monitor, even the same make and model, will have varying characteristics from copy to copy. Heck, even my MacBook Retina was made using two different screen manufacturers.